Challenges to Gov. Tom Wolf’s mandatory shutdown mount from businesses

Gov. Tom Wolf (Commonwealth Media Services)

Gov. Tom Wolf (Commonwealth Media Services)

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Challenges are mounting to Gov. Tom Wolf’s order late Thursday directing all but “life-sustaining” businesses to shut down, with the first of what could be a wave of lawsuits contending that the governor has overstepped his authority under the state Constitution.

On Friday afternoon, the Harrisburg-based law firm of Costopoulos, Foster & Fields petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for an emergency injunction to allow the firm to reopen. The governor’s order, among a list of other businesses, required law firms to close their physical locations.

“The governor’s order is so broad and sweeping, it is manifestly unconstitutional and illegal,” wrote William C. Costopoulos, a partner in the firm and a well-known defense lawyer who has represented elected and other officials in criminal cases.

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He added that the firm, its clients, “and others across Pennsylvania will continue to be deprived of their state and federal constitutional rights. … Not even a public health emergency should result in the deprivation of such critical rights.”

Later Friday, a separate law firm asked the high court to intervene — this time, on behalf of the firm, a gun shop, and a potential gun buyer. Among the arguments: that the would-be gun buyer from Bucks County was unable to purchase a firearm because gun shops in his area had shut down.

Joshua Prince, chief counsel at the Civil Rights Defense Firm, P.C., said in a statement that his firm “will not stand idly by and permit our elected officials to eviscerate our residents’ inviolate constitutional and statutory rights.”

The Wolf administration has claimed broad powers in handling the public health emergency caused by the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus.

Wolf signed an emergency disaster declaration on March 6, after the state confirmed the first coronavirus cases. In doing so, he triggered a part of the Pennsylvania’s emergency management law that vastly expands a governor’s powers. They include everything from ordering mass evacuations to limiting or outright halting liquor and firearm sales.

As the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise this week, Wolf on Thursday issued a new and expansive directive that sent the state’s business community into a tailspin of panic and confusion. It required all but the most essential businesses to close. His administration said “life-sustaining” businesses that could remain open include grocery stores, gas stations, farms, and transit systems.

Businesses ordered to shut down their physical operations include car dealers, lawn and garden stores, specialty food stores, and furniture stores. (His administration has since said it is working with businesses to potentially revise the list).

His order, which took effect immediately and will remain in place indefinitely, also applied to offices providing legal, accounting, architectural, and tax services. It also shut down swaths of the manufacturing sector.

The governor said that unlike shutdown orders he has issued since the virus began spreading in the state, this one would be enforced by the State Police, the state departments of health and agriculture, and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

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On Friday, Wolf said the decision “was not made easily,” but that it was necessary to ward off the chilling possibility of a catastrophic spike in cases that will overwhelm hospitals and health care workers.

“The only way to contain this virus is to take aggressive, decisive action,” Wolf said. “We can recover faster, stronger, and more quickly if we act now and prevent more people from becoming seriously ill.”

As of Friday, Pennsylvania had 83 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the statewide total to 268. The virus has spread from two counties initially to 26 counties. On Wednesday, health officials announced the state’s first death from the virus, a 55-year-old man from Northampton County.

Law firms are not the only businesses that have pushed back against the governor’s order.

Earlier Friday, the state’s leading manufacturers asked Wolf to revise his order, saying it is blocking essential supply chains from providing products to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus.

David N. Taylor, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association, said in an interview Friday that the governor’s office did not contact him or other manufacturing trade groups before issuing the order, which he called “rash,” “overly broad,” and “imprecise.”

Taylor said the order, which was issued just before close of business Thursday, shuts down timber operations, which he said feeds the supply chain for manufacturing paper products. It also leaves steelworkers without coal to use for making essential products.

“We need the governor to come to his senses,” Taylor said. “We need him to reconsider his executive order so we can refashion something that is workable.”

The governor’s office could not immediately be reached for comment. But in a statement Thursday afternoon, Wolf said, “To protect the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians, we need to take more aggressive mitigation actions.”

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